Downloads of the NSW Rural Fire Service’s Fires Near Me app surged to 750,000 in one 36 hour period during last month’s devastating bushfires, doubling the application’s user base. On one of the worst days of fires, the app sent 12 million notifications to users.

Key to coping with the demand was Fire Near Me’s cloud architecture, according to Dan Johnson a Sales Director for Arq Group, the ASX-listed digital services provider which developed the app in partnership with the RFS in 2018.

During the Amazon re:Invent conference today, Johnson told Which-50 that if the RFS had relied on its own on-premise equipment rather than cloud services, a peak would have quickly been met and users would have either not be able to download the app or for those that had service quality would be poor – both potentially devastating outcomes in a bushfire scenario.

Dan Johnson Arq Group Sales Director

But cloud architecture, Johnson says, “gives us that ability to deploy it to as many people as we need to without any downtime issue.”

The concept is known as scalability or elasticity – deploying back end services based on demand without interruptions to user experience. While on premise systems can theoretically provide the services by increasing resources, doing so constantly is not cost effective because demand is usually lower.

Cloud providers, however, with vast computing resources which they offer as a service can provide capacity as needed, spinning up resources during high demand and only charging their customers for what is used.

The Fires Near Me application runs on Amazon Web Services, the public cloud arm of the American ecommerce giant which has quickly become its biggest money maker as public cloud services have increased in popularity.

The app

Fires Near Me shows users a map view of the current bush fires burning in NSW. The data comes from RFS which relies on its fire fighters and the public to report fires. The fires are colour coded to represent their severity. Blue, for example, represents a controlled burn off while red represents a much more severe and potentially dangerous bushfire.

Users can set regions of interest, typically around their own property, and receive push notifications as situations change.

The Fires Near Me app. Via Google Play Store.

Fires Near Me was developed, designed and hosted by Arq Group, an Australian company which also counts NAB and Landmark as customers. 

Johnson told Which-50 the design process began before last year’s bushfire season and RFS was engaged throughout. He said the app was developed through an iterative process but the primary concern before deployment was handling the demand spikes of bushfire periods

“From a pure architecture view, we did all of that learning and testing upfront pre-deployment. And the push in that space was that the architecture had to sustain 10 million active users at a single time. 

“So there were a number of learnings that came out of that. And, post-deployment, it’s more about feature improvement design flow and what else can we can do to improve it.”

The app only reports fires in NSW but Johnson says most other states have expressed interest in similar applications following the last month’s devastating fires in NSW. He says much of the architecture could be reused with data from other states’ emergency services.

There is also scope to automate data input (currently all fire information used in the app comes directly from the RFS) and include more data points to identify fires and predict spreads.

The author traveled to AWS re:Invent as a guest of Amazon.

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